In Creamery Sale, Family Keeps Farm
Ayers Brook Plans To Focus Inward, Maintain Relationship
Until last Wednesday, Vermont Creamery, founded by Alison Hooper and Bob Reese in 1984, owned the Ayers Brook Goat Dairy farm on Route 12 in Randolph. But, on March 29, Vermont Creamery was purchased by Land O’Lakes, the butter giant based in Minnesota, for an undisclosed sum.
As part of that transaction, the Hooper family took ownership of Ayers Brook, but will maintain a relationship with Vermont Creamery, which buys most of the milk produced on the 1,000-goat farm, the largest in the state.
Vermont Creamery has been on a meteoric rise over the past several years, finding a niche selling cow and goat dairy products. According to Hooper, that growth was at a point where the investments in the brand’s future, such as training and expansion of operating capacity, seemed daunting.
“We thought, ‘I don’t think we’re going to be able to fund this out of our cash anymore,’ and we decided that going to the bank and borrowing many millions of dollars wasn’t something we wanted to do at our age,” she said.
The Land O’Lakes offer came after a yearlong process during which Vermont Creamery entertained 70 inquiries. According to Hooper, Land O’Lakes saw in Vermont Creamery an organization with a unique ability to market to a younger generation of consumers.
“Is the company going to stay in Vermont? Yes, absolutely,” Hooper said. “Land O’Lakes is investing significant resources into our creamery in Barre Town. I think it’s going to have positive implications for economic development, even reverberating as far as Randolph.”
Back at the Farm
Trudging through heavy April Fools Day snow accumulated in the Ayers Brook Dairy yard, Miles Hooper, Alison’s eldest son, acknowledged that since the company’s sale, “it feels a tiny bit different” for him on the farm.
“The day after, it was a crazy feeling, because this has been our whole life—the Creamery has.” For Miles Hooper, who was born in 1991, there literally isn’t a moment in his memory without Vermont Creamery.
In 2012, Vermont Creamery started Ayers Brook Dairy Farm, buying 116 acres from Perry and Carol Hodgdon.
The goal at the time was to create a model for goat farms around the state and further afield, an important step in securing the much-needed milk supply to fuel the creamery’s business.
Goat dairies are still a relative oddity in the United States.
Hooper, who has grown into the leadership role on the farm, said the sale of Vermont Creamery gave him a measure of relief.
Now, he said, “I don’t have to worry about being the guy that’s responsible for building the industry. Of course, I’ll help anybody that wants to get into it, but it’s not like we have a big race against the clock to start more goat farms.”
Hooper is bullish about goat farming, quick to point out the relative advantages over conventional cow dairies: smaller animals, less manure to manage, and a much higher premium for the milk.
Goats’ milk can go for three or four times more per pound than cows’ milk.
“Farming—even goat farming—is marginal and you need to be on top of the numbers,” Hooper warned.
“This right here,” he said, pointing to a three-inch binder full of papers. “This is my nutrition management plan. It’s an absolute numbers game and you have to stay on top of it daily.”
While responsibilities have shifted, Hooper and his family have a lot to do on the farm.
With six employees and periodic help from neighbors and VTC ag students, there’s plenty to keep the Ayers Brook folks occupied. Currently, they milk about 500 goats daily. Hooper intends to increase that number slowly to around 700.
To help reach that goal, Hooper recently erected a hoop barn that will serve as a new home for very young goats. He also plans to add a bunker silo and build a new milking parlor in the next year or so.
With the parent company sold, Hooper said he is glad to be able to focus on these projects.
The health of the Vermont Creamery was not always a foregone conclusion for the Hooper family.
“What an improbable success,” Alison Hooper exclaimed during a phone interview on Tuesday.
In the mid-1980s, Hooper recalled, she and her business partner Reese took out a loan to install a small boiler in her Brookfield barn and began making goats’ milk cheeses.
In 1988, nearly bankrupt, Vermont Creamery (at the time known as Vermont Butter & Cheese Company) recruited family and friends as investors. They were able to raise about $150,000 and stay afloat.
“They all put in $5,000 or $10,000,” Hooper said, “and we told them they would never see their money again—and they said, ‘OK.’ It was really fun to be able to prove otherwise.”
Nearly 30 years after that round of investment, the creamery’s backers saw a return.